30th Sep 2023


Why Spain's Popular Party is doomed to fail

  • By assuming that he would win by a landslide, Alberto Núñez Feijóo (right) incentivised conservative voters to stay at home, and in turn mobilised leftwing voters for his rival Pedro Sanchez (left) (Photo: Government of Spain)
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As long as Vox exists, the centre-right party in Spain will find it impossible to govern.

Losing an election in terms of expectations can be more painful than losing in terms of votes, as the centre right Popular Party (PP) painfully learnt in Spain's snap general election on Sunday (23 July).

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  • Saying Yolanda Diaz, the head of the far-left Sumar knew "a lot about makeup" was a sexist insult (Photo: US department of labour)

Following a landslide victory in local elections, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the PP's leader, was widely expected to become Spain's next prime minister. Most polls predicted that Spain would become the latest European country to shift to the right, joining Italy, Greece, Sweden, and Finland. Yet defying most predictions, the centre-right party was unable to secure a coalition rightwing majority.

So, what exactly happened? Feijoo made three big mistakes during the election campaign that led to his underperformance.

First, by assuming that he would win by a landslide, he incentivised conservative voters to stay at home, and in turn mobilised leftwing voters.

In addition, a series of bad decisions during an erratic campaign further deterred voters. He refused to attend a debate with his three main opponents, which weakened his image, and made mistakes about pensions (a very sensitive topic for most Spaniards) in a television interview. He was unable to shake off accusations of being friends with Marcial Dorado, a drug-trafficker, after an old picture of them together resurfaced, and said that Yolanda Diaz, the head of the far-left Sumar, knows "a lot about makeup", a comment that was perceived as sexist.

But the single biggest mistake that the PP has made is opening the doors to govern with Vox, a hard-right outfit, in local governments.

The conservatives fell short of a majority in most Spanish regions following local elections in May, prompting the party to form coalition governments with Vox.

The result has been a real-life preview of what a PP-Vox government at a national level would look like, and, unsurprisingly, moderate voters did not like it.

In Valencia, after PP and the hard-right had reached a governing agreement, a Vox official said that violence against women doesn't exist; environment and equality governments were scrapped across the country; and LGBT flags were banned in several regions.

Although it seems likely that there will be a repeat election, as Sanchez's party also fell short of the outright majority needed to take office even with the support of his existing allies, Feijoo's recent mistakes mean that his fate is probably sealed.

It has become apparent that his party's shift to the right has deterred moderate voters, but moving back to the centre could make him lose credibility, as it would be perceived as an opportunistic move. And it would most likely be a headache for the PP's regional leaders who are governing with Vox. Thus, he is stuck in a hard-line position.

Separatist problems

Moreover, he has run an inflammatory campaign, accusing Basques of being "terrorists" and adopting a very hard line with Catalan separatists, which has effectively left him without any allies in parliament.

For example, his party often used a slogan against Sanchez's deals with EH Bildu, a leftwing Basque separatist party, which referred to Txapote, an ETA leader jailed for multiple high-profile murders, that said: "Let Txapote vote for you".

Although it was very disrespectful towards ETA victims, Feijoo failed to condemn it, which effectively means that he has lost support of all the Basque parties in parliament (who collectively hold 11 seats). The PP hoped that the centre-right Basque National Party (PNV) would support his investiture, but PNV has outright refused to negotiate.

Feijoo has become unpopular within his party, too. While delivering his "victory" speech on election night, some PP supporters chanted the name of Isabel Diaz Ayuso, Madrid's regional leader and a very popular figure inside the party, and there are rumours that a leadership change may loom.

Feijoo has learnt the hard way that expectations matter more than victories; he may be about to discover that being ousted by your own is more painful than being voted out in the polls.

Author bio

Carla Subirana is an economist at Oxford Economics,and worked as a policy analyst for the Bank of England and Europe research analyst for Economist Intelligence.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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